Students serve up the timeless flavours of Greco-Roman culture during ‘Ancient Food Day’

January 25, 2024 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

It was a feast fit for Zeus himself.

Professors, graduate and undergraduate students enjoyed some of the same foods Greeks and Romans served at dinners thousands of years ago at the Classics Students' Union’s 4th biannual “Ancient Food Day.”

“Ancient Food Day is more than just a culinary festivity,” says Teodora Mladin, president of the student union and a sixth-year student with a double-major in classical civilizations and French linguistics and a member of Trinity College. “Food is one of the primary ways we share and retain our cultures. So, by indulging in these recipes, we momentarily taste the traditions, stories and experiences of ancient peoples.”

A group of student and faculty in a room with big windows standing in groups and eating at tables
The Classics Students' Union held its biannual Ancient Food Day event earlier this month. Photo: Teodora Mladin.

Tasting those traditions included enjoying dishes such as “Parthian chicken" cooked with leeks, red wine, dried dates and spices such as garlic and cumin. Just as popular were the parsnip fries, cooked with olive oil, honey, apple cider vinegar, cornstarch, celery seed, rosemary, pepper and fish sauce. According to the feast’s organizers, these were very popular in 224 CE.

A plate of asparagus was prepared with marjoram, which tastes like smoked fish, especially when mixed with coriander. According to the students, Greeks loved fish so much they wanted all their food to taste like it, including their vegetables.

There were also plenty of choices for those with a sweet tooth such as “enkrides” — the ancient equivalent to Timbits. These fried cheese dough balls are cooked in olive oil and then covered in honey. Or there was “melitoutta” which are honey cakes that resemble scones. Apparently, this was a dessert deceased souls would bring to the underworld.

A plate of asparagus on a patterned yellow plate
Asparagus, prepared with spices to give it a fishy flavour. Photo: Sean McNeely. 

Attendees also enjoyed the “pear patina” (frittatas) made with boiled cored pears and prepared with eggs, honey, olive oil, grape juice and white wine, offering both savoury and sweet flavours.

The dishes were washed down with beverages such as “Nectar of the Gods” — a mango nectar-based drink, and a mulled pomegranate drink called “Persephone in the Underworld.” Inspired by the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, its Greek description translates to “fire burning at night,” referring to its spiced quality as well as its dark, glittery colour.

The event was the culmination of weeks of preparation that included searching for original recipes, translating them and then preparing dishes as true to the original as possible. The group also created placards for each dish that contained the original Greek recipe, the English translation, and fun facts about each item.

A row of different dishes on a long table
Are those Timbits in the middle of the incredible spread? No, they are “enkrides” — small golden cakes made with a simple cheese dough, fried in olive oil and eaten with generous amounts of honey and pepper. Photo: Teodora Mladin. 

For Izzy Friesen, a fourth-year classics and classical civilizations student, and a member of Victoria College, translating recipes was an enriching experience from both a language and history perspective.

"Getting to translate recipes allowed me to engage with Latin in a different way,” says Friesen. “It was particularly valuable for us to attempt our own translations and look for recipes that caught our eye. It’s useful and exciting for language-learners but not necessarily something we’d get to do in the classroom."

Madeleine Andrasic, a second-year student with a double-major in classical languages and history, and a member of University College, also found translating the recipes revelatory.

A plate of pear patina next to an apricot dessert in a bowl
Time for treats! Pear patina next to an apricot dessert. Photo: Sean McNeely.

“Getting to translate these ancient recipes is heavily rewarding,” says Andrasic. “It really becomes evident that Greeks and Romans saw food in both similar and different ways to us. So much cultural and environmental history can be revealed in these texts, spiking further questions about food availability and food preferences in the ancient world."

For Tessa Delaney-Girotti, a fourth-year student with a double-major in classical civilizations and archaeology and a member of University College, preparing the dishes strengthened her connection to ancient peoples.

“It’s not only a unique experience to be able to eat the same kind of food as someone from thousands of years ago, but there’s also something about cooking those recipes, putting yourself into their shoes, that brings to mind the everyday activities of their lives,” says Delaney-Girotti, vice president of the student union. “Most of the time we feel far removed from the people we read about, but this brings a whole new perspective.”

A chicken  dish in a glass dish beside a plat of “enkrides” — small golden cakes made with a simple cheese dough
A delicious plate of Parthian chicken beside some tasty enkrides. Photo: Sean McNeely.

For Mladin, gathering to share a meal is a timeless human experience and organizing and hosting Ancient Food Day further connected her to the cultures she’s studying.

“The dishes we present are an emblem of history, a testament to the cultural exchanges, advancements, and the ever-evolving human story,” she says, adding that there’s been so much interest in these recipes, the Classics Students' Union intends to create an ancient recipe blog. “We are reminded of the depth and breadth of the ancient civilizations that shaped the very focus of our department."